Sunday, January 14, 2007

Of Eggs and a Basket

Yesterday, hockey fans were treated to one of the sappiest exhibitions of hero worship it has ever been my experience to witness. One could excuse it if it was the case of a young player looking to one of his NHL heroes as an example for his own play, or even a long-time fan who finally gets to meet his favorite player that he’s watched for years.

But no, this was a fawning of the most inexcusable kind – media covering a game, openly cheering the routine and exaggerating the mundane in a single player’s efforts. And in my mind, it reflects a problem the NHL is creating for itself in what looks for all the world to be blissful ignorance.

Watching and listening to the NBC coverage of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers yesterday, I had to wonder if even Sidney Crosby would have been embarrassed at the praise being spread on him thickly like too-sweet an icing on a birthday cake. Pierre McGuire was especially offensive, but he wasn’t alone. Let me point out, I’m a fan of the Washington Capitals, so the thought of rooting for or even acknowledging the talent of a Penguin comes hard. There are too many bitter playoff memories to sift through. I’m mindful that what follows could be construed as “Crosby-bashing.” It is not meant to be. I happen to like Crosby’s play. I like the edge and determination he brings to his effort; he doesn’t just fall back on his supreme skill, something it would be tempting for a player of his talent to do.

But the increasing oneness with which Crosby and the league are portrayed – that this, as McGuire put it with respect to a goal scored by Mark Recchi yesterday, is “all about Sidney Crosby” – poses what in my mind is a potential problem for the league.

In no other professional team sport in North America have the league in question and their broadcast partners put their eggs into one basket in the manner the NHL and its partners seem to be in the case of Crosby. Baseball sells the timelessness of the game, its rivalries, and its records. Football sells the logos of its respective teams, regardless of which player s might wear them, and the “event” nature of each game. Basketball, which no longer has the icons of Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, or Michael Jordan manning the court, seems to have struggled to find a consistent theme.

It is basketball provides possibly the most instructive example of the problem. The NBA was in a state of disrepair in the 1970’s, suffering – fairly or not – an image of a drug-addled league of limited appeal. It was, for lack of a better term, no more than a “niche” sport. Earvin Johnson and Larry Bird entered the league in 1979 and rescued the league from decline. They were succeeded by Michael Jordan, whose unique gifts were just what the NBA needed to achieve new heights. The talents of Commissioner David Stern can’t be underestimated here, either, but the point is that the NBA was able to put a face on its product (or in this case, “faces”).

But the matter isn’t quite that simple, and this is what I think is the problem facing the NHL and the matter of Sidney Crosby. Johnson, Bird, and Jordan were three of the greatest players in the history of the NBA. They largely defined the league for two decades. But despite their respective talents, the quality they had in common was that they won. Had their teams not won 14 titles over a period of 17 seasons in which at least one of them played, none would be revered to the extent they are today, and the league likely never would have returned to the status it enjoys today.

And that is where Mr. Crosby enters. At the moment, to paraphrase McGuire, “it’s all about Sidney Crosby.” Quite a burden for a 19-year old to bear. But he’s been training for it since he was in his early teens, much as Wayne Gretzky did in his early years.

This is different. When Gretzky entered the league, it was a “major” league in name only, and it was before the advent of free agency, multi-million dollar player contracts, billion-dollar network contracts, and the Internet. The manner in which the league, its media partners, and its marketing strategy have invested in the product named “Crosby” has the effect of putting all of their respective eggs into one basket.

It’s quite a gamble, because as we’ve noted, Johnson, Bird and Jordan won . . . often. And, they had help. Michael Jordan never won an NBA championship without Scottie Pippen at his side. Larry Bird had Kevin McHale and Robert Parrish and others. Magic Johnson had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy. Hockey is even less-forgiving to the “star” culture than basketball. Wayne Gretzky had Mark Messier and Jari Kurri, among others, and never won a Cup after leaving Edmonton. Mario Lemieux had Ron Francis, Kevin Stevens, and a young Jaromir Jagr (Jagr, it should be noted, didn’t have that support structure as he matured, and he has no Cups since those early Penguin days). And, hockey puts a premium on the contributions of all players up and down the bench – more so than perhaps any other major team sport.

The Crosby Strategy works only if Crosby wins. But hockey isn’t a “star-centric” sport any more than the other major team sports are or, in this instance, as much as the NHL might want it to be. It is a sport that needs contributions from the unsung, from the player who will put himself in harm’s way in front of the net to be there when the opportunity presents itself to bang home a goal from close range, from the player who will sacrifice himself to get in the way of a 100-mile-an-hour slap shot, from the player who will take a hit for the team to make a play. These are the little plays that make hockey what it is, the kinds that contribute as much to winning as a guy sliding on his knees to deflect the puck into the net and be the subject of highlight clips all over North America.

The NHL has a lot of marketing capital invested in Sidney Crosby. But being supremely skilled isn’t enough. Crosby had that highlight clip goal against Tampa Bay last week when he slid on his knees to convert a pass from Mark Recchi.

The Penguins lost the game. Is there a moral in that?

The Morning After -- Caps vs. Panthers

No points tonight . . .

. . . and a good thing that the league doesn’t subtract points for some performances, too.

The mysterious gas-like odor that settled over Manhattan last week moved into south Florida this evening, and it was shrouded in eagle logos. The Caps were pasted, 7-3, by the Florida Panthers. How bad was it? Let’s go by the numbers . . .

54 . . . No Caps team has ever given up more shots on goal on the road (they gave up 54 in a 7-5 loss to Philadelphia, December 19, 1975).

27 . . . only once in club history has an opponent registered more shots on goal than the 27 the Panthers had in the second period last night (28 on October, 20, 2005 against . . . yup, Florida)

2 . . . last night was the first time in 271 career games that defenseman Jay Bouwmeester scored two goals. He was +4, too.

9 . . . Stephen Weiss had more shots on goal himself than the Caps had in any single period (he had a hat trick for good measure).

17 . . . the Caps registered their fewest number of shots since October 28, 2005 (14, in a 4-2 loss to Tampa Bay).

.878 . . . that was the best save percentage among the three goaltenders playing this game. Congratulations, Olaf Kolzig . . . trouble is, it came on 41 shots (in 40 minutes), and he gave up five goals.

In a way, it was a very odd game. You give up seven goals, you would think certain specific players might have been victimized. Not in this case. No Cap was worse than -2, but 12 of 18 skaters were on the minus side of the ledger. Any argument that this player (Lawrence Nycholat) or that player (Brian Sutherby) was especially poor in this game really doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. That’s not to say they played well – they didn’t. It’s just that the whole team didn’t bother to show up. If anything, Olaf Kolzig was the best Cap on the ice (talk about damning with faint praise…). Goalies have to make the first stop, and Kolzig sure did make a lot of those. But the Caps never put themselves in a position to clear away the trash. Too many defensemen gave away position or were facing in the wrong direction; too many forwards just didn’t put in the effort to support the defense. Kolzig was left to fend for himself to the tune of better than a shot on goal per minute. If one totals the shots on goal, missed shots, and shots blocked by the Caps, the sum – 80 – is a reflection of the effort put forth by the Caps last night.

OK, enough of that . . . no, really . . . enough, already. This is the kind of thing that happens from time to time to a young team still feeling its way along. From my seat, the fear was that in the stretch of games between the holidays and the All-Star break, the Caps would have their mettle tested, not so much in terms of their skill, but in their ability to focus and put forth a consistent effort from night to night. That stretch is the dark void of the schedule – too early to focus attention on a playoff push, and the novelty of the beginning of the season has worn off. These are the games that a club has to grind out. At the moment, the Caps are somewhat lacking in their performance, and it is showing up on defense – 37 goals allowed in the 10 games since Christmas.

Had the Caps won this game, it would not have been unexpected or surprising. That’s what we said in the gameday. Well, losing isn’t necessarily surprising, either. Not when one considers that this is still a team lacking experience. But at the moment, what comes to mind watching this team is an exchange in the movie, “Bull Durham,” between Manager Joe “Skip” Riggins (Trey Wilson) and coach Larry Hockett (Robert Wuhl) in the midst of a losing streak. You know the one . . .

Skip: You guys. You lollygag the ball around the infield. You lollygag your way down to first. You lollygag in and out of the dugout. You know what that makes you? Larry!

Larry: Lollygaggers!

Skip: Lollygaggers.